Urdu literature after the Partition

August 14, 2022

The provenance of Urdu literature produced in Pakistan in the last 75 years lies in the poetics of modern-national literature which began in response to colonial conditions of the late 19th Century

Urdu literature after  the Partition


he provenance of Urdu literature produced in Pakistan in the last seventy-five years lies in the poetics of modern-national literature – slightly interrupted in 1947 – that began in response to colonial conditions of the late 19th Century. Pre-colonial Urdu literature would enjoy the freedom of imagination, a quintessential sinew to traverse the depth and breadth of the human psyche and social world. Wahshat or poetic lunacy acted as a springboard to trek the uncharted regions of human existence. Dil-i-wahshi (the lunatic heart) would love to transgress not just socially defined boundaries but also the ones drawn by cosmic forces. Maen andaleeb-i-gulshan-i-na afreeda hoon (I am a nightingale for a yet-to-be-created garden) might be termed the spinal feature of classical poetics. The metaphor of ‘yet-to-be-created garden’ points not only to an ideal, utopian world of desire but also to the latitude a writer needs to unleash his creative potential, explore psychic regions and interrogate socially constructed identities. Among most classical poets, we find a common theme of deriding and mocking religious identity markers. But with the advent of colonialism, wahshat of the poet was replaced by a zeal for the nation. The nightingale of a yet-to-be-created garden was transformed into the nightingale of the garden of Hijaz, Ajam or Hindustan. Now the imagination of Urdu writers was hedged with nationalism, a modern-Western phenomenon. So, both poetry and fiction produced in Urdu since the late 19th Century seem to have become a site to portray and negotiate this or that sort of national identity.

Urdu literature after  the Partition

Even progressive and modernist writers of the 1930s couldn’t let their literary ideologies trespass on national boundaries. Paradoxically, the more progressive writers call off religious and linguistic identities, the more they foist class identity on people. The notion of the working class would work as a struggling nation against the exploitative nation of the ruling class. Similarly, despite overemphasising their individuality, modernist poets like NM Rashid and Meeraji negotiated with Ajam and Hindustan, respectively, in their poetry informed by a nationalistic ethos.

With the partition of British India into Pakistan and India, the continuity of this modern-national literature was briefly interrupted at the hands of fasadaat (riots). Urdu afsana (short story) particularly chronicled the harrowing events of mass killing, rape and arson. It is interesting to note that Urdu poetry lags behind as far as registering the traumatising experience of partition is concerned. We have a slim volume of an anthology of poetry entitled Gham-i-Douran (Sorrow of the times) edited by Ghulam Rabbani Taban, scribbled in response to the horrors of Partition.

Urdu literature after  the Partition

It is true that an ensemble of Urdu poems still resonates with us while we happen to juxtapose the juggernaut of the dream of freedom from colonial power with the modicum of independence. Among these few poems, Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Subh-i-Azadi (The Dawn of Freedom) stands tall. That the dawn of freedom is stained, battered by darkness and we still need to continue the struggle for freedom, is the core of Faiz’s poem. Its central metaphor the night proved seminal for the upcoming Pakistani literature which, with the passage of time, got a dystopian quintessence. However, the question of why Urdu fiction leapfrogged Urdu poetry in registering the sufferings of the Partition still needs to be answered.

This writer is of the view that with the partitioning of British India everything falling within geographical and imaginative realms of the country got partitioned. Not only land, regions, assets and peoples, but their histories, traditions, languages and works of literature were also divided. Riots on both sides of the newly drawn border laid bare, on one side, the ghastly, brutal side of the souls of erstwhile neighbours, and on the other, showed up shockingly that that brutality was both instigated and legitimised by being seized by ‘modern, religious national identity’. Such complex human existential conditions could have been imagined and grasped with all their intricacies by fiction alone. Saadat Hasan Manto’s book of mini-stories Siah Hashiay (Black Margins) and other stories like Toba Tek Singh, Khol Do, Krishan Chandar’s Peshawar Express and Aik Tawaif ka Khat (A Letter by a Prostitute), Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s Permishar Singh, Rajendra Singh Bedi’s Lajawanti, Qudrat Ullah Shahab’s Ya Khuda and Ashfaq Ahmad’s Gudraya (Shepherd) are unforgettable stories of the Partition in Urdu. Other than portraying faithfully the excruciating incidents the partition witnessed, these stories dwell on the relationship between identity and violence. Urdu novels especially Quratulain Hayder’s Aag ka Darya (River of Fire), Khadija Mastoor’s Angan (Yard) and Abdullah Hussain’s Udas Naslain (Weary Generations), Shaukat Siddiqui’s Khuda ki Basti, Jamaila Hashmi’s Dasht-i-Sous (Desert of Sous), Bano Qudsia’s Raja Gidh, Enver Sajjad’s Khushion ka Bagh (Garden of Delight), Ikramullah’s Gurg-i-Shab also gave ample space to the wrangle of identity.

Urdu literature after  the Partition

“A nation is not only borne out of its literature but the notion of nation is fully imagined, strengthened and materialised by its national literature”, has been in the air since the late 19th Century. This thread was picked up by Muhammad Hasan Askari, who soon after independence, raised the question about the contours of Pakistani Urdu literature. His argument went like this: while we have got an independent Islamic nation-state, the culture and literature to be produced here must have an Islamic ethos. This not only set the future course of Urdu critical discourse but also inspired many authors like Intezar Hussain, Salim Ahmad, Sajjad Baqir Rizvi, Teshin Firaqi, Jamil Jalibi and others. Sajjad Baqir Rizvi categorically put forth the view that Urdu criticism, since 1947, could have any meaning only if it embraced and then disseminated a national sensibility. Nation, national culture, and national literature are closely connected.

The debate on Pakistani literature and Pakistani culture continued until the 1980s. Progressive writers like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sibte Hasan, Mumtaz Hussain and Mohammad Ali Siddiqui countered the monolithic notion of Pakistani culture drenched in religion by emphasising the centuries-old local, indigenous cultural traditions into a chequered notion of Pakistani culture. Wazir Agha, in his magnum opus Urdu Shairi ki Mizaj (Mettle of Urdu Poetry), offered a view that some literary genres, in this case, geet, ghazal and nazm, are more drenched in the perpetuity of culture than the ephemerality of socio-political conditions. So, by writing and reading geet, ghzal and nazm, we let our imagination and perception engage with pre-Islamic indigenous cultures. Mustansar Hussain Tarar set his novel Bahao in a thousand years old Indus valley civilisation that is on the brink of extinction due to the drying up of the River Sarasvati and seeks to paint the life, culture, rituals, and state of human relations before Aryan and other nations’ invasions of this land.

Urdu literature after  the Partition

The metaphor of a ‘horrible night’ was predominant in writings that came out soon after the Independence. It was a travesty of independence that instead of celebrations there was a series of sufferings and lamentations due to riots, migration and displacement. Political upheavals followed by Independence and the first martial law made Pakistani writers believe that the night of subjugation had not ended. In the early 1950s, Manto’s vatic letters to Uncle Sam revealed that Pakistan had given in to a new colonial power. Habib Jalib was extremely vocal in putting up resistance against dictatorial policies. His poem Dastoor (Constitution), disaffirming in tone, still resonates with us and ironically sung by a few members of that ruling class the poem bid to resist their transgressions. Enver Sajjad, one of the pioneers of jadid alamti afsana, employed the metaphors of night and darkness in his book Chourarha (Quadrivial) to narrate the story of life under dictatorship. Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Habib Jalib continued producing resistance poetry against Gen Zia ul-Haq’s martial law. Anwer Sen Roy’s novel Cheekh (Scream) narrates the ghastly events of atrocities committed by the oppressive regime against writers and commoners. Faraz’s Muhasira (Siege) is worth mentioning in this regard. Ejaz Rahi edited an anthology of fourteen Urdu short stories titled Gawahi (Testimony) a few months after the imposition of martial law. The book was banned, and the editor lost his job. Saeeda Gazdar’s Aag Gulistan Na Bani (The Fire that didn’t turn into a Garden) was also banned and confiscated. Ikram Ullah, Masood Ashar, Sami Ahooja, Rasheed Amjad, Ahmad Daood, Anwaar Ahmad, Mansha Yaad – all the jadid aalamti afsna nigar put up resistance against atrocities committed by the oppressive, tyrannical and undemocratic regime.

With the partitioning of British India, everything falling within thegeographical and imaginative realms of the country got partitioned. Not only land, regions, assets, and peoples but their histories, traditions, languages and works of literature were also divided.

Though the Fall of Dhakka didn’t find as much place in Urdu literature as the magnitude of this tragedy called for, Intezar Hussain’s Shahr-i-Afsos, Masood Ashar’s short story Dukh jo Matti Nay Diay, Masood Mufti reportage Chehray aur Mohray, Tariq Mehmood’s novel Allah Megh Day, Altaf Fatima’s novel Chalta Musafir, Mohammad Hameed Shahid’s Matti Adam Khati Hae are worth mentioning. Abdulla Hussain (Nadaar Log), Intezar Hussain (Basti) and Mustansar Hussain Tarar (Raakh) in their novels have included episodes about the fallout of Dhaka. Faiz’s poem Dhaka say wapsi per (On return from Dhakka) (Ham keh thehray ajnabi itni mudaraton kay bad: We parted like strangers after all those celebrations of love ended ) and Naseer Turabi’s ghazal Wo hamsafar tha magar uss say Ashnai na thi (he was a co-traveller but no acquaintance) resonate heart-wrenchingly with us while we think of the tragedy of Dhaka.

Migration, displacement, nostalgia, homecoming, and reclamation constitute the peculiarity of Pakistani Urdu literature written since the early 1960s. Though migration and displacement are not synonyms - the former is volitional, optional and purposeful while the latter is forced and involuntary - the way they have been treated in Urdu literature tells that there was a mixed yet complex experience of leaving old, native homes for a newly created homeland. While going through the writings of Intezar Hussain, Nasir Kazmi, Ahmad Mushtaq, Munir Niazi, Iftikhar Arif, Saqi Faruqi, Ada Jafri and Zehra Nigah we come to realise that they all nostalgically recall and recount the people, places, trees, birds, and cultural rituals of their homelands. Ahmad Mushtaq’s couplet: Pata ab tak nahi badla hamara/ wohi ghar hae wohi qasba hamara (We have retained our old address/ We still live in the same home, the same town) epitomises the conundrum of migration and displacement almost all the migrated/ displaced writers have experienced in post-colonial countries especially. They came on to turn their writings into their home; they used to feel at home in the writings about their abandoned homes. Intezar Hussain went on to transform his personal experience of migration/ displacement into a collective, cultural experience. To achieve this, he traversed – and reclaimed abandoned, forgotten stories, myths and fables of India and Semitic origin. In his novel Basti, short stories Zard Kutta (Yellow Dog), Ahkri Admi (The Last Man), Nar Nari (Male and Female), Kachway (Tortoises), Hussain has metamorphosed his personal experiences of displacement from ‘origin’ and ‘home’ into original, the primordial and archaic experience of exodus the humanity has gone through across the history. What Hussain did in fiction, Iftikhar Arif did in his poetry, though Arif’s approach is not as inclusive as Hussain’s. Besides powerfully depicting the sufferings sired by a sort of paradoxical existence – experiencing homelessness at home or Sisyphean search for home while being at his own house, Arif has reclaimed the metaphor of Karbala in a bid to write the predicaments and traumas caused by the Partition and the disillusionment from ruling class. Interestingly, all these writers, in one way or the other, keep negotiating through their writings with a notion of a nation, though their overall notion is more cultural and less political.

Lisani Tashkeelat (Linguistic Constructions) or Nai Shairi ki Tehreek (Movement for new poetry) that began in the early 1960s while Pakistan was going through Gen Ayub’s dictatorship, was a culmination of the trend of modernist poetry initiated by Meeraji and NM Rashid and taken ahead by Majeed Amjid, Mukhtar Siddiqui, Qayum Nazar and others. Though Iftikhar Jalib, Jilani Kamran, Anis Nagi, Abbas Athar, Tabassum Kashmiri and Saadat Saeed – proponents of nai shairi, derided the poetry of Meeraji and Rashid, their emphasis was on individuality, mocking and breaking away from tradition, both old and recent, chiselling new, hyper individual diction and fashioning new aesthetics based on the personal experience of the poet. All these ideas were in the air since the 1930s. So, the only distinguishing emphasis was on new. Nai shairi influenced not only a legion of contemporary poets but also the way to evaluate modern poetry. Except for Zafar Iqbal in ghazal and Jilani Kamran in nazm, no other Urdu poet succeeded in materialising the spirit of this much-touted movement. However, poets like Aftab Iqbal Shamim, Qamar Jamil, Sabir Zafar, Jamal Ehsani, Sarvat Hussain, Afzaal Ahmad Syed, Sarmad Sehbai, Ali Mohammad Farshi, Naseer Ahmad Nasir, Rafiq Sandeelvi, Saeed Ahmad, Farrukh Yaar seem to have been inspired by the poetics nai shairi proffered. Who can skip the names of Pakistani poets like Josh Malihabadi, Zaheer Kashmiri, Farigh Bukhari, Shohrat Bukhari, Amjid Islam Amjid, Aziz Hamid Madni, Aslam Ansari, Ubaidullah Alim, Ibne Insha, Joan Elia, Ghulam Mohammad Qasir, Rasa Chughtai, Mohsin Ehsan, Sahar Ansari, Salim Kausar, Abbas Tabish, Shaheen Abbas, Haris Khaliq, Shinawar Ishaq and Ali Akbar Natiq?

The movement for jadid alamti afsana coincided with the nai shairi movement. Some critics are of the view that both the hype-rmodern movements were launched in response to Gen Ayub’s oppressive regime which was using a stick-and-carrot approach. The founding of the Pakistan Writers’ Guild and the launch of literary prizes like Adamjee served as a ‘carrot’. Paradoxically, this persuasive, yet dictatorial, approach was executed by writers themselves under the auspices of Qudrat Ullah Shahab, a writer-bureaucrat. Progressive writers were already being hushed up since the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. Censorship was at its peak during martial law. However, emphasis on symbolic expression in poetry and afsana was not motivated by only a dread of persecution. It was a mix of an attempt to evade persecution and a desire for new, experimental, parallel ways of expression. Jadid alamti afsana was a revolt against realism and a linear plot narrative that had been in vogue since the late 19th Century. Manto’s Phundanay (Tufts, 1950) has served as a prototype for alamti afsana. It deals with the complex fusion of sex and violence in a non-linear narrative. It might be called ‘modernist-postcolonial Afsana’ for it, with all subtlety, recognised that ‘new, realist stories’ of the colonial era would stick to the faithful depiction of ‘daily, ordinary reality’ and fail to fathom the depths of human existential reality marked by multi-layered-psychic-mythical-cultural aspects. Besides the names mentioned above, Arsh Siddiqui, Ahmad Javed and Mirza Hamid Beg deserve mention. Though around the mid-1980s almati afsana movement faded away, its insistence on innovativeness and experimentalism continued to influence new short story writers like Asif Farrukhi, Zahida Hina, Agha Gul, Tahira Iqbal, Neelofar Iqbal, Mohammad Hameed Shahid, Amjid Tufail, Mubin Mirza and others.

The feminist movement in Urdu poetry originated in Pakistan. Ada Jafri, Zehra Nigah and Parvin Shakir stayed away from this movement, although their poetry is feminine. Fahmida Riaz’s Aqlima and Kishwar Naheed’s Ham Gunah gaar Aurtain (We the Sinful women) might be pronounced manifesto of this movement. “I speak (against all patriarchal figures), therefore, I am” seems to have worked as a guiding principle behind this emancipatory movement. The names of Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Sara Shagufta, Azra Abbas, Shahida Hasan, Ishrat Afrin, Tanvir Anjum, Fatima Hasan, Yasmin Hameed, Parvin Tahir and Nasim Syed are noteworthy.

Literary criticism played a significant role in not only appraising contemporary texts and re-evaluating classical texts but also in the burgeoning and furthering literary movements. From the 1960s to the 1980s jadid and taraqi pasand tanqid had become arenas for the clash of pure literary ideas and political ideology. In the late 1990s post-modernism and in the second decade of the 21st Century post-colonial criticism stole the show. Other than the names already mentioned, Mumtaz Shirin, Syed Abid Ali Abid, Muzaffar Ali Syed, Suhail Ahmad Khan, Fateh Muhammad Malik, Jamil Jalibi (who single-handedly has written the history of Urdu literature as well), and Zamir Ali Badayoni are remarkable.

The Twenty-First Century has witnessed a boom in the Urdu novel. These novels are distinct from those written in the 20th Century in plumping for themes, style and narrative techniques. The post-modern meta-fiction technique characterised by a continuous reminder to the reader of the fictionality of the novel seems to reign in most of the best novels produced in the last two decades. Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Khas-o-Khasha Zamany, Mirza Athar Beg’s Ghulam Bagh, Akhtar Raza Saleemi’s Jagay Hein Khaab Men (Awakened while dreaming), Mohammad Asim Butt’s Daira (Circle), Syed Kashif Raza’s Char Darvesh aur aik Kachwa (Four Ascetics and a Tortoise) and Asghar Nadeem Syed’s Dasht-i-Imkan (Desert of possibilities) are worth mentioning. Though these novels differ in themes, they all, more or less, seem to be negotiating with the dystopian sombreness caused by the unfulfilled dream of freedom and touching upon the conundrum of Westernised-colonised-modern-nationalism.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic and short story writer and professor of Urdu at University of the Punjab. He is the author of dozens of books including two times award winning Urdu Adab ki  Tashkeel-e-Jadid

Urdu literature after the Partition